The North West Sturgeon Upgrader: Good Money after Bad?

  • F.L. Ted Morton University of Calgary


The North West Upgrader (NWU) project illustrates the risks of government-led efforts to diversify Alberta’s economy. What began as a low-risk, low-cost project to encourage domestic bitumen upgrading has morphed into a multi-billion dollar boondoggle with high risks for Alberta taxpayers. Originally, the Government of Alberta (GOA) intended to collect bitumen from producers in lieu of royalties and sell it to provincial upgraders, adding value to the commodity and creating jobs and revenues in Alberta. The private sector was to build and finance the new upgraders, as well as assume the market risks of low margins. The 2008 financial collapse effectively killed that plan. With just one prospect (NWU) remaining, the Stelmach government decided to be more than the middleman. The GOA committed to retain ownership of the bitumen up to the point of sale, pay NWU a toll for the processing, and then sell the upgraded product. Under a new “take or pay” arrangement, the GOA assumed liabilities estimated at $19 billion over the 30-year contract with NWU, as well as the market risk of having to sell the upgraded product at below costs. As four different premiers and six different energy ministers cycled through Edmonton, construction costs soared to over $8 billion. The original $6.5 billion cap on the GOA’s liability for construction costs disappeared, and the GOA—and by extension, Alberta taxpayers— are now on the hook for $26 billion in processing payments — the equivalent of $63 per barrel. Falling oil prices are further undermining the prospects for the investment to break even. Written from a rare insider’s perspective, this paper analyzes the lack of effective government oversight and due diligence surrounding the North West Upgrade. Rather than being an exception, NWU fits the larger and longer pattern of failed “forced-growth” diversification initiatives in Alberta and other provinces. Alberta politicians should think long and hard before succumbing to the next version of the “refine it where you mine it” diversification siren song.